The sight of Paris Hilton’s jewelry covering the surface of a plain, wooden kitchen table was staggering. Diamond bracelets. Bangles. Expensive watches. Cocktail rings. Pearls. This was just some of the stuff the LAPD had recovered when they raided the homes of the teens and 20-somethings we’d later come to know as the Bling Ring. It was 2009, and I was a 25-year-old correspondent for a cable TV network, crouched on the ground in front of police headquarters, scribbling notes as Detective Brett Goodkin shared pictures and descriptions of the loot with me and the three or four dozen other journalists assembled.
It wasn’t surprising to me when, less than five years later, I found myself watching the story unfold again on the big screen in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. The fascination was already at a fever pitch in the Fall of 2009. The group was eventually linked to break-ins at the homes of Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, and Lindsay Lohan, to name a few. TMZ was posting constant updates, Vanity Fair was investigating a big, splashy story on the crimes, and the teenage burglar bunch was a regular topic of cocktail-party conversation in LA. It was simple to track down the Bling Ring kids via social media in the early stages of the investigation, and — probably to his detriment — key suspect Nick Prugo had a used-car-salesman of an attorney who was a quick and easy source of information. Clearly it was questionable information, but it was something to go on, nonetheless. Detective Goodkin was talkative and quick to pick up the phone. In fact, his open-book approach has him in hot water these days; he was paid more than $25,000 for consulting on the movie and appearing in a cameo role, as an officer who arrests Emma Watson’s character, without asking for permission from his higher-ups. He’s being investigated by the LAPD as I write this and might lose his job.
For me, the Bling Ring story was a perfect Los Angeles tale. Nevermind that these kids lived in the suburbs of Calabasas, just an hour’s drive in traffic from the Hollywood homes they robbed. They may as well have been from Boise, ID, like me. They were total outsiders who just happened to be in close proximity.
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When the Bling Ring struck, the recession was still in its most serious throes, and these kids living on the periphery set out to take what was not theirs. It was unbelievably easy. They jumped fences, snuck in through unlocked doors, or — in the case of Paris Hilton — simply lifted up a doormat to find a spare key helpfully lodged underneath.
There was something almost anarchistic behind their attacks, but they didn't seem angry about Paris or Orlando or Lindsay’s wealth, or seem like they were trying to reclaim it for the common man; they just wanted to live inside that kind of life. If you could wear Paris Hilton’s dress, why couldn’t you be her? In a world full of people famous for being famous, wouldn’t the trappings themselves make you a celebrity in your own right?
Coppola herself may not have grown up mostly in LA or be a teenager anymore, but as a young person who closely followed the Bling Ring case, her portrait of youth in this movie feels authentic and right. She cast mostly unknown teens (Katie Chang and Israel Broussard among them) to fill the roles of the robbers, so while their performances can sometimes feel slightly stilted and self-conscious, those moments also serve their roles as kids trying to seem more sophisticated than they really are.
Some of the most frequent complaints lobbed at Coppola’s filmmaking have to do with a lack of substance; Marie Antoinette and Somewhere were particular targets for that critique. But if Coppola makes movies that are obsessed with veneer and tone, this story lends itself perfectly to that. It’s tailor-made to her talent for detail, penchant for visual excess, and ease with letting things beyond the surface hum with energy, even if they never break through. For these kids, life was surface, existence was veneer, image was reality. If they looked the part, they would be the part. Coppola knows that, so she lets this story unfold plainly, like so many diamond baubles laid out on a kitchen table. It’s up to the audience to feel the anxiety and moral nagging that most of the characters simply don’t.
Coppola’s movie isn’t timeless — it captures a very specific time — and I think that’s a brave choice for any director. In five years, the celebrities, the social media, the brand names, and the thumping dubstep will all feel dated. But right now, they don’t feel so far away.
I laughed in the opening scene of The Bling Ring, when Emma Watson recites a speech ripped straight from the lips of one of the real-life burglars, Alexis Neiers. "I’m a firm believer in karma,” Watson drones as her character, Nikki, in a voice caked with Valley Girl vocal fry and melodrama. “And I think this situation was a huge learning lesson for me, to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I wanna lead a country one day, for all I know."
Despite the cartoonish-ness, this was a real speech given by Alexis — albeit not on the courthouse steps. But she gave plenty of similar statements there, too. I was among the throng of reporters who dutifully captured her words on notepads and through camera lenses, stifling laughs, looking on in wonder at the lipglossed 19-year-old in patent-leather heels in a miniskirt, stunned and, frankly, sort of scared by her lack of self-awareness.
As I watched The Bling Ring, I wondered how unreal or exaggerated Watson’s monologue would seem to most moviegoers. But like the rest of the strange facts about the Bling Ring’s story the movie contains, that was pretty much exactly how it unfolded.